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Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt
Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt
David Hempton
Yale University Press, 2008
256 pp., $40.00

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Timothy Larsen


No Longer at Ease Here

Nine stories of "evangelical disenchantment."

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The evangelical approach to human experience is fundamentally artistic. Artists understand that you cannot speak about the general directly, but rather the human condition can only be illuminated through radical particularity: if one wants to declare the converting power of the Christian faith, then tell a story about a stuffy, officious son imposing a priest upon his reprobate father, the Marquis of Marchmain, as he lies dying. Likewise, evangelicalism believes deep in its bones that the truth is to be found in quirky, individual life stories—in the testimony, for instance, of a no-account, impoverished tinker harassed by malicious, internal voices. [1]

David Hempton's powerful and poignant new book, Evangelical Disenchantment: 9 Portraits of Faith and Doubt, is itself a work of art, humming along smoothly with the grain of evangelical attentiveness to personal narrative. His nine studies are the Victorian novelist, George Eliot; the reformer and brother of John Henry Newman, Francis W. Newman; the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld; three American advocates for women, Sarah Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances Willard; the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh; the English man of letters Edmund Gosse; and the African American writer James Baldwin.

It would be easy for a critic to challenge the choice of these particular figures, so let's begin with something easy. Hempton argues compellingly that evangelicalism needs to learn from the complaints of its "conscientious objectors and wounded lovers." His selections all offer the perspective of those who had a precise faith drain away and were left with only, at best, a vaguer spirituality. Many ex-evangelicals, however, have arrived at other dogmatic identities such as Mormonism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism (Cardinal Newman was no less disenchanted with evangelicalism than his freethinking brother). Introducing such figures would generate substantially different lessons for the evangelical movement to learn—indeed, sometimes antithetical ones to those evoked in this book.

Chapter 5, which presents Grimké, Stanton, and Willard (thus the only chapter that covers more than a single figure), is particularly problematic. Grimké fits the general theme of the book best, yet her youthful brand of Quaker spirituality means, as Hempton himself concedes, that she was "never a conventional evangelical." Stanton never had an evangelical identity to lose, and Willard never became disenchanted with hers.

This last point, I fear, will be lost on some people who encounter this volume. The very first sentence of Evangelical Disenchantment is: "This book is about the faith journeys of nine creative artists, social reformers, and public intellectuals who once were associated with the evangelical tradition, but who later repudiated that tradition." Yet Willard—one of the nine—did not remotely do any such thing. She did challenge "male interpretations of the Bible," but then so did, for example, her contemporary Catherine Booth, the Mother of the Salvation Army.

It is true that Willard's mature religiosity was "not without tension and complexity," but one would have to paint a caricature of evangelicalism for that not to be true of many of its representatives in good standing—from a founding father of the movement, John Wesley, on down. One wonders if Hempton put these figures in simply because he did not want women to be so badly underrepresented in his volume. Perhaps instead he should have explored the intriguing possibility that men have more often become disenchanted with evangelicalism than women.

Still, the portraits are the thing, and they are haunting. Consider F. W. Newman. His Oxford career was regarded as largely without precedent in its particular display of brilliance (a double first in classics and mathematics). He became enamored with evangelicalism in its most uncompromisingly biblicist form, the emerging (Plymouth) Brethren movement. Fired with zeal for the salvation of the world, he volunteered himself to be a missionary to Baghdad. Before arriving on the field, Newman industrially worked on adapting to this new culture by taking up smoking. The failure of this mission had a disillusioning effect on him. When fellow Brethren uncharitably accused him of heresy, this further alienating experience seems to have served as almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Francis Newman dissected evangelicalism in his Phases of Faith and then became an antivivisection reformer.

The (Plymouth) Brethren reappear in the portrait of Edmund Gosse, who wrote an indictment of his evangelical childhood which became a minor literary classic, Father and Son. As a youngster, Gosse bonded with his widower father by combining their formidable intellectual powers to endeavor to decode the true identity of the Beast in the book of Revelation. As an adult, he could only look back on such eschatological exuberance with embarrassment. As Hempton deftly puts it, "Edmund, whose literary stake in the world had increased, and who seemed on the brink of a dazzling career on planet Earth, had every reason not to wish for a rapture."

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